Olympic Flame

The Sporting Spirit Keeps On Going

Across borders, and through closed borders, sports can inspire and unite. While we wait to see what comes of Tokyo 2020, we re-live some of the finest displays of excellence and human spirit at the world’s most significant sporting festival — the Olympic Games.

Image: Getty Images

01 | Tommie Smith, John Carlos And Peter Norman Salute Black Power — Mexico City 1968 

Before Colin Kaepernick (former San Francisco 49ers quarterback), there were American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Olympic gold and bronze medallists in the 200m race, who raised a fist to highlight segregation and black poverty in their homeland. Both were suspended and returned home to death threats. They, however, were gradually reaccepted and both went on to brief stints in the NFL. The third man, Australian Peter Norman, didn’t salute, but his solidarity — he wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge — nevertheless turned him into a pariah at home. Despite qualifying for the next Olympic games, he was left off the squad and he retired in obscurity. Events off the track had dominated the lead-up to the 1968 Olympics. In the US, racial tensions were high, the Vietnam war was raging and both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. In Mexico City, where the games were held, protesting students had been massacred by government bulldozers. Australia, with its White Australia policy, was in the midst of racial tensions too. 

Image: Getty Images

02 | Greg Louganis Loses Hair But Wins Gold — Seoul 1988

Team USA diver Greg Louganis entered the 1988 Olympics as a favourite to pick up yet another pair of gold medals. But while attempting a reverse two-and-a-half pike in a preliminary round, he hit his head on the edge of the three-metre diving board, drawing a collective gasp from the packed arena. He suffered a concussion and received five stitches but was back at the pool within 35 minutes. As if the terrifying moment hadn’t happened at all, Louganis went on to win gold by a lead of 25 points over his nearest competitor. He also successfully defended his gold in the 10-metre platform event. Gay and HIV-positive, Louganis is now a prominent LGBTQ activist.  

Image: Getty Images

03 | Marathoners Deriba Merga and Samuel Wanjiru Share a Bottle — Beijing 2008

The late Samuel Wanjiru (right) became Kenya’s first Olympic marathon champion in Beijing, setting an Olympic record of 2:06:32 that stands till this day; though he did it with a little bit of help from a rival. Two-thirds through the race, Deriba Merga (left) of Ethiopia saw Wanjiru miss his water stop and offered him a swig from his own bottle. Refreshed, Wanjiru picked up his pace and went on to make history. He later told the press: “Merga is my friend and when I missed my water, he helped me out and told me to go for it as he was not feeling good.” This unusual act of water bottle sportsmanship was, in fact, witnessed more than once on that oppressively hot and humid day.

Image: Getty Images

04 | A Win for Joseph Schooling and a Win for Swimming — Rio 2016

Carrying the hopes of an entire nation, Joseph Schooling clocked 50.39 seconds in the 100m butterfly final, becoming Singapore’s first Olympic champion. His childhood hero, 22-time Olympic gold medallist American Michael Phelps, finished in 51.14sec, as did his old rivals Chad le Clos of South Africa and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary. It was the first triple tie in Olympic history, and the trio took to the podium together, holding hands, with a jubilant though overwhelmed Schooling standing to their side. It was a special moment even for those watching at home. In his victory, Schooling denied Phelps a win in the last solo race of his career, but like a legend that he is, Phelps was gracious. “I’m proud of Joe,” he told the press. “I wanted to change the sport of swimming. With the people we have in the sport now, I think you are seeing it.”

Image: Getty Images

05 | Table Tennis’ Mr Possible, Ibrahim Hamadtou — Rio 2016

An internet viral sensation before he even reached Rio, Ibrahim Hamadtou may not have won a Paralympic medal, but he has done much to transform attitudes about persons with disabilities. The Egyptian was 10 when he lost both of his arms in a train accident and now competes by holding the racket in his mouth and flicking the ball up with a foot to serve. Even opponent David Wetherill, who defeated the 2015 African Championships silver medallist in three straight games at Rio, came away saying, “ I know I won today but I think he has demonstrated far more skill than I have just now”. The 47-year-old father of three has his sights set on the Tokyo games.

Image: Getty Images

06 | Philip Boit Skies Into History Books — Nagano 1998

No Kenyan had ever competed in the Winter Olympics until Philip Boit qualified for the Nagano Winter Games in 1998. In fact, Boit had only seen snow for the first time just two years earlier when he began training in Finland to become a cross-country skier. Entered in the 10km race, Boit came in last in a field of 92 competitors, but won the crowd over with his tenacity. “They were shouting ‘Kenya Go! Philip Go!’ It was like I was winning a medal even though I was last,” Boit recalled. He also won the admiration of gold medallist Bjorn Daehlie of Norway, who graciously delayed his medal ceremony to congratulate Biot at the finish line. The Kenyan was so touched by the gesture he named his newborn Daehlie Boit. 

Image: Getty Images

07 | Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino Exemplify Olympic Spirit — Rio 2016

Neither runner took home a medal in their 5,000m event but both received a prize even more rare — the Olympic Fair Play award for the humanity and sportsmanship each displayed. With nearly 2,000m left in their preliminary heat, New Zealander Nikki Hamblin stumbled and fell on the track. Just behind her, American Abbey D’Agostino also landed awkwardly. D’Agostino picked herself up, telling Hamblin, “Get up, we need to finish this”. When D’Agostino fell a second time, it was Hamblin who came to her aid. In a showcase of Olympic spirit, both would go on to finish the race; D’Agostino with a torn ACL that required surgery. 

Image: Getty Images

08 | Japan’s Softball Team Dethrone a Giant — Beijing 2008

Japan pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the Beijing Games when it pipped the United States — till then the only country to have ever stood on the winner’s podium since the sport’s introduction in 1996 — 3-1 to claim gold. It was a remarkable turnaround for Japan. After suffering a confidence-crushing 0-7 defeat at the hands of the Americans in the preliminary round, the team had to dig deep to finish second in the preliminaries to earn their spot in the medal round. Superstar pitcher Yukiko Ueno was the team magician, only allowing one run in seven innings during the gold medal game. In all, she endured painful blisters to throw an incredible 413 pitches in two days.

Related Stories